Estonians in North America, 1939-1945
Estonians in North America
World War II
In 1939, Estonia and the North American emigre community enjoyed the last months of peace. For Estonia the war began on August 23, 1939 with the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which gave the nation over the Soviet Union1s sphere influence. Red Army troops entered the country June 21, 1940 and established a puppet communist government. On August 6, 1940 the nation "voluntarily" entered the Soviet Union and the age of Soviet oppression began.
The horrors and atrocities committed by the Soviets during their first occupation were simply unbelievable, enough themselves to warrant the writing of several books. On July 13, 1941 10,000 people, 1% of the population, disappeared in one night and were deported en masse to Siberia. To put that into perspective, that is the equivalent of metropolitan Chicago or the states of Iowa or Oregon being destroyed overnight in the modern United States. The deportees consisted of intellectuals, leaders, business people, clergy, and property owners; anyone the NKVD labeled an enemy of the people. In addition to this one single horrific night, 30,000 people were conscripted into the military or sent away to do slave labor. 1,741 people were found in unmarked mass graves. All told, over 60,000 people were killed, captured or deported by the time the German army took Estonia in June 1941.
In spite of these atrocities, nearly 30,000 Estonians were able to escape the country to freedom in the period of 1939-43. It is unknown how many of these people were ultimately able to make it to North America, although some certainly did. The chaos of war prevented them from crossing the Atlantic during the actual fighting, so most remained in friendly Finland or neutral Sweden until war1s end. At the time, the early Estonian refugees making their way westward blended in with the postwar immigrant flood.
The Estonian community in North America took an extremely active part in the Second World War. Countless Estonians took up military service, people bought war bonds and worked to raise public awareness of the situation going on in their homeland following the Soviet invasion. At the beginning of hostilities there were perhaps as many as 30,000 Estonians or people of Estonian descent in North America.
By joining forces with organizations of Latvians and Lithuanians in the form of the Baltic American Society, the Estonian community was able to bring about widespread condemnation of the Soviet takeover. On July 23, 1940, the United States government publicly and forcefully expressed its opposition to
predatory activities no matter whether they are carried on by the use of force or the threat of force. They are likewise opposed to any form of intervention on the part of one state, however powerful, in the domestic concerns of any other sovereign state, however weak.
This coalition of Baltic expatriates also influenced New York governor, Herbert H. Lehman to proclaim June 15, 1941 to be Baltic States Day. The purpose of this declaration was to
convey their [the citizens of New York] sympathy to the people of these enslaved nations and give public expression of the hope that they will soon regain their freedom.
As with most other citizens of Allied western countries, Estonian-Americans were very active in the purchase of war bonds to finance the war effort. In addition to private purchases made by people of the community, the World Association of Estonians bought $13,500 worth of United States War Bonds. This money was in turn used to purchase six ambulances for the U.S. Army. In gratitude the War Department placed a plaque in each vehicle proclaiming its origin.
During wartime, the Estonian community was also heavily involved in social and humanitarian activities. On August 14th, 1941, Johannes Markus, president of the World Association of Estonians, proposed the formation of the Estonian Relief Committee. The committee was formally incorporated in October 31 under the leadership of Salme Kaiv. Inside of the month the committee sent over $5,000 to Sweden to assist Estonian refugees living there. Despite its early creation and activities, the true importance of this group would not be fully realized until after the war when the bulk of the Estonian refugees arrived.
Nazi occupation of Estonia lasted nearly three years. During this time, the German population of the country returned to Germany and the Jewish population was nearly destroyed in a makeshift extermination camp near Pirita, a village just outside of Tallinn. In 1943, Estonian youth were organized into Labor Corps and the Estonian Legion was formed. In addition, thousands of Estonians were forcibly conscripted into the German army.
This is not to say that Estonians were passive victims during all of this, however. On the contrary, remembering the atrocities of the past years, many Estonians voluntarily took up the German cause against the Soviets. Partisans fought with the assistance of German arms and many Estonians escaped to fight in the German supported Finnish army. It is perhaps telling to note that Estonia is one of the only countries in the world where Hitler was actually welcomed. It was never that the Nazis were truly desired, rather it was simply a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.
By the time 1944 came Germany was losing the war and was about to be driven back out of the country by the Red Army. Panic ensued among the Estonian people. Knowing the ferocity of the previous Soviet occupation, over 80,000 people took the risk of attempting escape to the west. People took to the Baltic crowded into every boat that they could get their hands on. Often boats sank in the rough seas and untold others were destroyed at the hands of the Soviet navy and air force. Those refugees that were unable to sail to Sweden made their way overland to the southwest, following the retreating Nazi army to Germany.
The Red Army retook Tallinn on September 22, 1944. By November all Estonia was back in Stalin`s hands. The Soviet Union declared it liberation. In reality, the prison door was swung shut and would not be reopened for another half century.
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© May 2, 1997
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